Making Climate Action Happen, Part III — Scrutinising Our Underlying Beliefs

BY BEN HABIB.

Anyone who has tried to change any aspect of their behaviour will know that to create lasting change, knowledge is not enough.  All the positive intent in the world is not enough.  In previous instalment of this series I introduced the five-stage process of behavioural change (pre-contemplation, contemplation, preparation, action, & maintenance) and described its applicability to climate-related behavioural modification.  The burning question is this: how does one progress from one stage to the next?  How do we go about altering environmentally unsustainable lifestyle patterns?  Where do we start?  It begins with identifying, scrutinising and altering the multi-layered beliefs systems that underlie our behaviours.  Without addressing these underlying beliefs, any gains we make will be fleeting.

We can conceptualise our underlying belief systems as a layered pyramid, in which the ideas at one level are necessarily influenced by those below (see diagram).  Our actions are underlain by ideological beliefs that form our value system.  These value systems are guided by assumptions we all hold about what constitutes valid knowledge.  Our assumptions about knowledge are in turn shaped by specific interpretations about what the purpose of our existence ought to be.  How we conceive our purpose in life is governed by what we consider our relationship to be with other life forms and the natural world.  Finally, these relationships are founded upon (often religious) ideas about the very nature of existence itself.

The pyramid of our underlying belief systems.

We can penetrate this pyramid of ideas by asking ourselves a specific set of questions at each level of the pyramid, to probe each layer of our underlying belief system.  You need to answer these questions honestly, based on what you actually think and not on what you believe is popular or the right thing to say.  Being dishonest with oneself is a form of denial, which is a major barrier to behavioural modification.

First, you begin by taking an inventory of your present lifestyle.  This provides a useful indication of how far along the behavioural change process you actually are.  Ask yourself the following questions…

1. Describe your lifestyle and your regular consumer choices.

2. Does climate change factor in your everyday decision-making?

3. What, if any, personal and collective changes have you made to you life because of concern about climate change?

Our actions, behaviours, lifestyle choices and political inclinations are underpinned by theories about how individuals should conduct themselves and societies should function.  These ideas—ideologies—not only shape individual behaviour but also that of institutions.  The exercise of power depends on access to different types of resources, including natural resource stocks, finance, information, and human labour.  In a finite world, such resources are inevitably limited and often scarce.  In the contest for access to these resources there are winners and losers, those who gain and those who miss out.  Politics, therefore, is the process through which competing individuals and groups in a society arrive at a procedure for the division and distribution of scarce resources and services.  This involves debates and contests over both the distribution of power (who gets to decide) and the outcomes of the exercise of power (who gets what).

Different ideologies have a different take on how power should be distributed and who should benefit from that power distribution.  For example, Liberalism privileges the rights of the individual and protection of private property in a system of market-based mechanisms for economic production and distribution.  By contrast, socialism favours public ownership and cooperative management of the means of economic production and resource management.  Democracy emphasises participation and popular sovereignty, such that all members of a polity have more or less equal access to power.   Nationalism involves strong identification with a political entity defined on the basis of shared language, race, descent, and history, often at the expense of non-members of the national group.  Environmentalism is concerned with the protection of the natural world and the establishment of a socially just and democratic society as the antidote to ecological crisis.  Broadly speaking, feminism is interested in establishing and defending equal political, economic, and social rights and equal opportunities for women.  The questions posed at this level are intended to gauge your relative level of ideological commitment, and what specific ideological convictions you are committed to…

1. How would you describe yourself to someone you have just met?

2. If you are aware on your ideological conviction, what political ideology/s do you find most persuasive?

3. Do you support political candidates who directly address your needs and wants, or directly address the wider needs of our society?

4. Do you feel a strong affiliation to any political party?

5. What is your attitude to the relative role of government and business in public policy and economic management?

6. What, if any, government policies do you advocate to address climate change?

Our ideological value systems are guided by assumptions about what constitutes valid knowledge, evidence and the burden of proof (epistemology).  Such questions are of crucial importance in relation to climate change, given the fierce battle between the scientific community, which overwhelmingly supports the notion of anthropogenic climate change, and climate sceptics, who take the a variety of positions underplaying or denying human impact on the global climate system.

There have been thousands of peer reviewed scientific papers published over the last two decades, from of scientists around the world, conducting independent research across numerous scientific disciplines, which have increasingly come to four broad conclusions: (1) that atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases have been steadily increasing since the industrial revolution; (2) that human activity is responsible for this increase, which greatly exceed cyclical variations in atmospheric concentrations over geological time; (3) that the impact of increasing atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations is beginning to have a noticeable effect on the global climate system and thus the Earth’s biosphere (and by extension human societies, which exist within this system); and (4) these changes to the global climate system are becoming more intense and erratic.  Of course there is great debate within the scientific community about the timing and magnitude of these impacts, but the four basic points outlined above have not been a matter of conjecture for some time.

By contrast, only a very small number of works published by climate sceptics appear in the peer reviewed literature.  Peer review helps to ensure that publications meet the standards of their discipline.  There is a marked difference in credibility between peer-reviewed academic literature and other publications that have not passed through this rigorous process.  The battle between climate science and climate scepticism has direct relevance for the layperson in relation to where they source their information about climate change, but it is not the only epistemological concern.

The following questions allow you to critically examine your beliefs with regard to climate change, to query how you know those beliefs are valid (burden of proof), and reflect on the reliability of the evidence you have drawn upon to form those beliefs.  Ideological beliefs founded upon information and evidence that lacks credibility cannot properly equip you to understand the climate change threat, nor take the appropriate actions to meet this challenge.  Consider the following questions…

1. When, if at all, did you come to see climate change as a problem, and what evidence led you to that conclusion?

2. How do you know that your position on climate change is valid?

3. Where have you sourced the information from which you have formed your position on climate change, and how would you rate the reliability of those information sources?

4. Is there one truth that describes someone’s position on a given issue, or does their position depend on their perspective?

Our assumptions about knowledge are shaped by an implicit understanding about what the purpose of our existence ought to be (teleology).  Any action, process or thing has a purpose if it exists for the sake of an end or final cause.  For example, does the natural world exists for human exploitation (the purpose of nature is external to itself), or is the natural world is important in and of itself (purpose is unrelated to any external variable).

Another example is the debate between evolutionists and creationists.  An evolutionary biologist like well-known atheist Richard Dawkins would claim that there is no underlying purpose or design behind life (the “blind watchmaker” theory), in contrast to the various strands of creationism which purport that the world contains overwhelming evidence of order and design, illustrations of purpose.  Of course purpose and design imply the existence of a designer, a master architect: God.

To probe the question of purpose in your life, ask yourself the following questions…

1. Do humans have a purpose?

2. Does your life have a purpose?

3. Does the Earth have a purpose?

4. Do non-human life forms have a purpose?

How we conceive of our purpose in life is influenced by how we perceive our relationship to other life forms and the natural world (an ontological question).  For example, do human societies exist as a part of the natural world or as objective actors, external to the natural world.  We can also ask, if the two are considered separate, whether human beings should take precedence over the natural world and the other life forms within it.

One could argue that the Western industrial development paradigm and its supporting ideology of progressive social evolution are underpinned by the ontological assumption that humanity is separate from nature, resulting in development models that pay scant regard to the effect of human activity on ecosystem services and other species.  Conversely, one could suggest that human superiority over the natural realm is a social construction that is inconsistent with the survival imperative of humans as living organisms and of the resource needs of complex human societies, both of which rely on inputs from the natural environment.

How would you define your relationship with the world around you?  Ask yourself the following…

1. Are some humans superior to other humans?

2. Are humans superior to other life forms?

3. Does human welfare take precedence over the welfare of other life forms?

4. Does human welfare take precedence over that of natural ecosystems?

Finally, our relationships with the natural world are founded ideas about the very nature of existence itself (cosmology).  What is the origin and nature of the universe, and the place of humans within it?  Indeed, these are the ultimate questions relating to the human condition.  From deepest root, your cosmological orientation filters upward to influence your attitudes to taking responsibility and have a ripple effect through your assumptions about the correct way to live, particularly in the face of an existential threat such as climate change.

For example, in the absence of belief in a higher power, in the random universe of the blind watchmaker, is an atheist likely to have an ontological bias toward prioritising human welfare above other life forms and ecosystems?  Does that entail that the teleological purpose of human superiority over nature is human domination over nature?  Does someone believing in an Anthropomorphic God defer responsibility to the coming ‘saviour’?  In the strong version we see religious fundamentalists; do they welcome environmental deterioration as a sign of the coming ‘rapture’?  In the light version we see faith in scientific progress and technological fixes—“they’ll come up with something” to fix the problem, even if just who “they” is remains a vague conception.  And what of the holistic view that God is ‘everything’, such as we see in texts like the Bhagavad Gita and the Dao De Qing?  One could infer from this position that an injury against the natural world is necessarily an injury against God.

Ask yourself now some of the biggest questions of all…

1. Do you believe in the concept of God?

2. If so, how would you describe God?

3. Are you an atheist (the position that there are no deities)?

4. Are you agnostic (someone who claims that one cannot have true knowledge about the existence of God, but does not deny that God might exist)?

5. Do you believe that other intelligent life forms exist in the universe (extra-terrestrial beings)?

Congratulations if you’ve made it this far, as thinking at this level is some seriously heavy terrain.  Now that you have answered all of these thought-provoking questions, re-examine your answers in reverse order, beginning with your thoughts on cosmology.  Look for logical inconsistencies between your responses at each level, along with responses that do not correspond with your actual behaviours and lifestyle choices.  In so doing, try to identify unhelpful assumptions, emotional impediments or psychological issues that may be obstructing your path to sustainable living and environmentally-conscious citizenship.  If you do identify some obstructions, reflect on why they may have arisen and brainstorm ideas for practical you can do to remove them.

By going through this process you will be far more empowered to progress through the behavioural change process toward lasting, environmentally-conscious and sustainable living.  In the fourth and final instalment of the Making Climate Action Happen series, I will discuss the broader social, economic and political ramifications of many people embarking on the climate-conscious behavioural change process together.  In so doing, we, as members of a group of active change agents, can translate our personal behavioural changes into the broader political and organisational change deemed necessary if catastrophic climate change is to be avoided.

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Dr. Benjamin Habib is a Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at La Trobe University, Albury-Wodonga. Ben’s research project projects include North Korea’s motivations for nuclear proliferation, East Asian security, international politics of climate change, and methodologies for undergraduate teaching. He also teaches Australian politics.  Ben undertook his PhD candidature at Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia, and has worked previously the Australian Department of Immigration and Citizenship.  He has spent time teaching English in Dandong, China, and has also studied at Keimyung University in Daegu, South Korea.

Ben welcomes constructive feedback.  Please comment below, or contact Ben at b.habib@latrobe.edu.au.

The views in this story are those of the author and not necessarily those of Our Voice: Politics Albury-Wodonga.

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2 responses to “Making Climate Action Happen, Part III — Scrutinising Our Underlying Beliefs

  1. Succinct argument and very sociological in nature, taking into account the micro and macro aspects of a complex post-industrial issue such as climate change. Chris Mooney addressed the National Press Club about the pervasiveness of skeptical views on climate change in the face of peer reviewed evidence based on the scientific method last week (16/02). You may find that interesting if you didn’t see it.

    There are many issues at play here: bloggers misinforming agents, governments stalling on effective policy (not to mention the inadequacies of proposed policy changes) which parlays into these structures giving denialists cause to uphold their thoughts on the matter, the fear of increased cost to consumers (and perhaps little if any cost to polluters)…and I am sure there are more factors involved.

    The pyramid of underlying belief systems represents valuable enquiries that all agents should undertake and if it were to be applied to all aspects of the human condition the world would be a better place. I cant help but think that society (it’s reproduction of patterned behaviours and value systems) needs a complete audit at the levels of structures and agents in order to navigate the future terrain in the area of climate change and in many other areas. It is within domains such as this article that change is instigated and little by little we make headway and intelligent minds ruminate and act, lets not let it be too late!

  2. Pingback: Getting Real About Educating for Sustainability in Universities | Dr Benjamin Habib·

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